Outside Help: Kant in 90 Minutes

Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book warns against using outside sources to help you read most texts, save, perhaps, dictionaries. Doing so can actually harm your ability to form your own opinion, and I get where he’s coming from.

However, if you ever read Immanuel Kant, you might need a little outside help.

This is not, in any way, a comment on your intellect.  I’m sure it’s sharp as a tack.  The only problem is that Kant’s intellect was sharper than, well, the majority of human beings at his time, and probably 95% of the human race that lives today.  Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue, because most intellectuals actually have a capacity to bring what they’re saying down to the reading level of mere mortals, but not Kant.  I’ve had to RESTART the introduction in an effort to try to grasp what he’s saying!

I will confess, however, that I’ve had a little help from a book known as Kant in 90 Minutes by Paul Strathern, a British writer who looked at some of the philosophers he taught about at Kingston University and said, “I shall make this all more accessible for people who might think that philosophers are blowhards with dictionaries for brains!” As a result, he produced the Philosophers in 90 Minutes series, which, as you can guess, gives a 90-minute summary of the life and thought of a given philosopher (in this case, Immanuel Kant).

Now, this kind of sounds like cheating, and perhaps in a way it is, because I’m taking Paul Strathern’s interpretation of Kant to be what Kant really meant.  However, I’m OK with doing this (and probably making Adler turn over in his grave) for two reasons:

1) Though I’m a little smarter than the average bear, that’s like being 6’1″ and standing next to someone who is 6′ even. It really doesn’t make a difference, and that’s not me trying to be humble; people are smarter than they want to give themselves credit for, and this stuff isn’t as inaccessible as you’d think.  What Kant in 90 Minutes does is give a leg up for those not necessarily familiar with this subject (and my knowledge is limited) and helps them form an opinion.

2) Kant is obnoxiously verbose and confusing. Rather than sit here with a dictionary (which I’m going to have to do), I can have someone bring it down to layman’s terms and show me what he’s talking about.  I’ll have to do a good portion of it on my own anyway, but this gives me a frame of reference to look at.  For example, it helps to know that Critique of Pure Reason was written as a response to David Hume’s Concerning Human Understanding. Without that frame of reference, and perhaps brushing up on Hume a little, much of Critique of Pure Reason wouldn’t make sense.

There is a reason to be cautious: we mustn’t let others influence our thoughts of what we’re reading, especially with nonfiction books of any subject.  Part of reading nonfiction involves forming an opinion about the author’s writings, and if we’ve listened to someone else’s interpretation of a particular text, we can miss seeing everything the original author is trying to say. Viewpoints are a dime a dozen, and, in this case, the best viewpoint is your own.

Overall, commentaries and summaries aren’t evil in and of themselves; we just have to remember what they’re for: perspective.  They’re not the gospel truth, and we shouldn’t treat them like that. As far as the Philosophers in 90 Minutes series, I recommend them for those getting their feet wet in philosophy. They’re great summaries written at a level we common folk can grasp, and then springboard into actual philosophical texts and form our own perspective.

Have a good one, guys!  Got a double today, so if I’m not TOTALLY wiped out, I’ll have a post for tomorrow!


2 thoughts on “Outside Help: Kant in 90 Minutes

  1. Funny that I come to the same conclusion in your paragraph directly following reason 2 from the completely opposite spectrum. “[W]e mustn’t let others influence our thoughts of what we’re reading” is true if our thoughts particularly are attached to ourselves in some inextricable manner, but I would think that, for the most part, we only understand ‘who’ we are by contrast with others (i.e. ‘who we are not’ – our definition is a method of negation).

    So, instead of isolating ourselves from the opinions of others in order to preserve the purity of our own thought it is better to admit that any book is one moment in a conversation (a snapshot if you will) – just as Kant would not have written if there were nothing to respond to and you would not be reading him unless others thought that his thoughts were important. While I always want to hear a man in his own words…the medium of writing a book isn’t that which lends itself best to immediate discourse. Instead we must first tune our ear to hear his words for what he means by them as best we can, but we quickly find ourselves (if the material is engaging) transposing his thoughts. It is much the same for conversation – except Kant is unlikely to interject should he feel our interpretations particularly violent to how he meant to use the terms. If such is a concern, one mustn’t write – instead one ought to have a thoroughly one-sided Socratic mono-logue in which the ‘con’versation ends when the speaker is finished. Conversation is quite dangerous, but ideas do not so inhere within our individual persons that they should remove the communal nature by which we are best defined.

    That said, I wonder if you and Gelapes might look at other translations. I feel confident that Kant wasn’t writing in Modern English, so perhaps there might be helps beyond the realm of commentaries (and yes, sometimes we really need them). Cheers for the attempts though friends – stretching the mind to its limits often proves a good thing – if only for the humility.

  2. Managed to dig through the abridged sections offered in ‘The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche’. Abridged sucks for me b/c I want to be able to say I ‘ve at least successfully skimmed an author’s thoughts but in truth I don’t have time to get into everybody’s thoughts. At least it’s still primary text (though trans.) and it’ll have to do for now. As for the psychology of reading-status, I recommend ‘How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read’ by Pierre Bayard; an interesting balance to Adler (wonder what MacLean wd think of it).


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